Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Review: 2013 Chevrolet Spark 2LT

2013 Chevrolet Spark 2LT

A-segment cars, or micro cars, have been a bit of an experiment in the U.S. Well suited to tooling around cramped European and Asian city streets, there hasn’t been much market for these runabouts in the U.S. until recently. Previously thought of as too small for the U.S., manufacturers have decided to test the waters with a few models. However, all of these models have been very niche oriented. For instance, there’s the Smart ForTwo, but it only seats two, making it only good for a commuter. You can cram one more person into a Scion iQ (two in dire straits), but it’s still a small two-door that’s also best left for commuting. The Fiat 500 is more practical, and has a usable back seat for two. But, like the ForTwo, it drinks 92 octane fuel and, while it drives the best of the aforementioned automobiles, you’ll pay a premium for it. There hasn’t been an attempt at a mass-market A-segment vehicle until Chevrolet decided to introduce the Spark to the U.S. market.

The Spark is a South Korean-built A-segment vehicle with four doors, unlike any of the above vehicles. It will genuinely seat four adults without too much protest. Its 1.2-liter 84 horsepower engine drinks regular 87 octane gasoline. On top of it, you can buy one starting at $12,185 plus destination, which includes power windows, air conditioning, 10 airbags, stability and skid control, aux inputs, hill assist, and a trip computer. Our test model was a fully loaded 2LT model with a sticker price of $15,795. What does a fully loaded Spark come with? Some surprising features, actually. This would include heated leatherette seats (yes “leatherette”), steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, cruise control, a seven-inch LCD touch-screen display with MyLink, and sport front and rear fascias.

Chevrolet Spark headlight
Since I first saw the Spark concept drawings, I’ve liked its looks. It’s modern looking without looking cartoonish. Up front, the headlights are very large, but they flow with the rest of the car. There’s a silver roof rack up top, fog lights up front, and the exhaust tip protrudes through the rear bumper that has a premium look to it. The Spark rides on 15” alloy wheels and 185/55/15 tires, and they do look a bit small due to the car’s shape. But as a whole, the Spark has a sharp design that has a premium look to it—this isn’t econobox styling.

Powering the tiny Spark is the equally tiny 1.2-liter DOHC four-cylinder making the aforementioned 84 horsepower and 82 ft./lbs. of torque. This model’s curb weight is 2,337, which is actually more than some of its larger B-segment competitors, such as the 2,295 lb. Toyota Yaris. This heft doesn’t lend itself to great performance. However, around town, the Spark felt surprisingly peppy. It never felt overly taxed. Its size also lends itself ideally to city driving, where the Lilliputian Chevy easily darts around town with ease. The Spark was surprisingly competent on the highway, too, and road manners are more sure-footed than I would’ve expected from a car this small with so little power. Downshifts from fifth to third gear at 60 MPH yield mostly noise, and the road noise is quite high. This is where the Spark shows its city car underpinnings, as well as its low price. It feels a bit thin, but honestly, it’s better than I had anticipated. In fact, I found the Spark to be quite fun to drive, especially with the five-speed manual. The transmission has long throws, but isn’t imprecise or rubbery, either—two traits I expected. But to my surprise, this tiny powertrain works very well and efficiently. I got 36 MPG during my short three-day stint, with about 60% of my driving being on the highway. The car is EPA rated at 32 city, 38 highway.

Chevrolet Spark 2LT interior

Inside the Spark you’ll find a futuristic looking cockpit with body-colored accents in the doors and a motorcycle-inspired gauge cluster (very similar to the one on the Chevrolet Sonic). An easy-to-use three-dial climate control system works easily, and infotainment duties are handled on the seven-inch touch-screen monitor with the MyLink system. This allows for streaming audio, video, pictures, and such. It works quite well. I appreciate you can adjust the volume not only with the button on the screen, but with a slider, so you can quickly turn the music down when needed. Oh, and this is the first car I’ve reviewed that doesn’t have a CD player, by the way. It does have a USB and aux jack. No navigation, but you can download an app to your smartphone for $50—far cheaper than in car navigation options—and connect the MylLink system to your phone’s for GPS use. Neat idea.

Chevrolet Spark rear seat folds forward and down
Spark's rear seat bottom hinges are very simple, but work.
We loved the fact this little car had heated seats, and the seats are comfortable, too. The backseat is smallish, but two grown humans can fit in the back. The rear seat will fold flat. It requires you flip the rear seat bottoms forward and tilt the seatback down. Unlike the Honda Fit’s wonderful folding Magic Seats, however, the Spark’s rear folding mechanism is very primitive. When I tried to first fold the seat bottom forward, the entire pad came out in my hand. The hinge mechanism is literally some bent steel rod that hooks into the floor. I have mixed feelings about this. At first I thought it was chintzy, which it is. Then the sheer simplicity of the mechanism impressed me. Plus, they’re easy to completely remove, too. There aren’t even any screws or bolts holding them down. As long as the system works and doesn’t break I’m good with it.

There are also a few other areas where Chevy cheapened things up. One is the ignition, which felt very cheap. You could move the key/lock mechanism all around. Maybe it was just our model, but it felt cruddy. The other is the audio system. I haven’t heard a worse sounding audio system in decades. While much of the car is quite good, the six-speaker stereo felt like it was pulled from a 1980s econobox. Also, the upholstery on there rear of the back seat was puckered up a bit; a bit loose, which looked cheap.

2013 Chevrolet Spark 2LT rear shot

But lest I remind you: This is a very inexpensive car. Overall, however, it’s an impressive inexpensive car with lots of personality. In fact, I’m quite smitten with the Spark, and could see owning one someday. It’s really quite good. So has, of all companies, Chevrolet, finally found the sweet spot in the American A-segment market? We’ll have to wait for a full year’s worth of sales data, but it’s selling better than Chevy thought. I can’t help but be reminded of the Geo/Chevrolet Metro. It was small, dependable, and thrifty. Unlike the Spark, however, it wasn’t nearly as refined or substantial. So maybe this is the mainstream microcar that’s been missing on the market since the Metro’s departure in 2001? I’m guessing the combination of price and equipment will make the Spark the most successful A-segment car in the U.S.—and it’s even offered by an American-based company. Who’d have thought?



Rich M said...

What really bugs me about the Spark is that they didn't just use the same cluster from the Sonic. The segmented Tachometer doesn't look easy to use in the least. The tach should occupy the needle/dial like it does in the Sonic with the speed as a number.

Ducati Scotty said...

I think a micro car that sells for around $15k loaded is going to have some compromises. Still, it seems like it's got some good to balance the bad. What's the difference between leatherette and vinyl? Marketing?

Andy Lilienthal said...

A agree, Scott. There are some compromises, such as the lackluster stereo, the upholstery on the back of the rear seats, the rudimentary rear seat folding mechanism, and the flimsy feeling ignition. Still, the good by far out weigh the bad on this car.

And the difference between leatherette and vinyl? I tried to Google it before posting but didn't find anything definitive. I'm guessing it's simply vinyl, much like the 1986 Dodge Colt (aka Mitsubishi Mirage) we owned had. It would also get to a temperature just below thermonuclear in the summer time. Better lay a towel down before sitting!

nlpnt said...

-What you said about it being better than expected is pretty much what Motor Trend said.

-I'd opt for the cloth-trimmed base model. I suspect most buyers would, too; the $15k price point of a 2LT is rubbing shoulders with entry B-segment hatches and the Fiat 500 Pop.

-Too bad they felt they needed to make the bottom grille bigger with the Federalization/midcycle refresh.

-If this isn't small enough for you, there's a pretty nice 1/24 scale diecast of the Spark made by Norscot (who mostly does construction equipment, go figure).

Ducati Scotty said...

Honestly, leatherette interior could make this car a no-go for me. As a child I scalded my unprotected thighs on the black vinyl of my mom's '72 Impala too many times.